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Demanding a Better Press

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IN environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times was wrestling recently with the problem of how to get into his newspaper a story about DNA in Yellowstone National Park. Finally he hit on the formula: a reference to O.J. Simpson in the lead. The story made Page 1.

That was an innovative way to win a broad audience for a story that some might label dull, but it was a sad commentary on the state of American journalism.

One after another, big names in journalism are worrying about a slide toward sleaze, superficiality, and celebrity coverage - a preoccupation with conflict and scandal instead of solutions and substance.

Tom Winship, whose editorship of the Boston Globe won it a string of Pulitzers, startled a convention of journalists last month by saying of the press today: ``It's too cynical, it's too negative, it's too superficial, and I think we're doing quite a job in trivializing to death serious newspaper and serious television and radio journalism.''

Peter Kann, chairman and CEO of Dow Jones & Company Inc., which owns the Wall Street Journal, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent himself, earlier this year warned the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers of a ``growing [American] media fascination with the bizarre and perverse... . The press has a short attention span. It is a rare issue that can long sustain media interest.''

Jim Lehrer, of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, has lashed out at snide journalistic arrogance, a ``plague on and in the newsrooms of America,'' which he says is eroding journalistic credibility.

These gloomy words come from journalists of moderation and reason. They love their craft and are concerned about the negative trend they perceive emerging in it.

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